Hold that. Thought! Questioning five common assumptions about communicating with the public. Joe Cone, Oregon Sea Grant

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1 Hold that Thought! Questioning five common assumptions about communicating with the public Joe Cone, Oregon Sea Grant

2 Contents Introduction... 3 Assumption 1: We need to get the word out... 4 Assumption 2: We already know how to communicate... 5 Assumption 3: If they only had information Z, then... 6 Assumption 4: Recipients of our information will consider it thoughtfully... 7 Assumption 5: Successful communication is an art... 8 Appendix: Models of communication and persuasion... 9 Endnotes...14 Works Cited...14 About the author...16 Acknowledgments This essay was improved by the comments of colleagues and fellow communicators Rick Cooper, Patrick Corcoran, Sally Duncan, Marsha Gear, Jack Greer, Bob Malouf, Lee Sherman, Susan White, and Marie Zhuikov. I appreciate their counsel. Errors and follies that remain are my own doing. Text by Joe Cone; editing by Rick Cooper; design by Patricia Andersson by Oregon State University. This publication may be photocopied or reprinted in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. To order additional copies of this publication, call This publication is available in an accessible format on our Web site at sgpubs/onlinepubs.html For a complete list of Oregon Sea Grant publications, visit sgpubs This report was prepared by Oregon Sea Grant under award number NA070AR (project number A/SARP-1) from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration s National Sea Grant College Program, U.S. Department of Commerce, and by appropriations made by the Oregon State legislature. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendation are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of these funders. Oregon Sea Grant Corvallis, Oregon ORESU-H

3 Introduction This article is a companion to Expand Your View: Insights for public communicators from behavioral research. TThis essay is offered to the professional who works in a university, government agency, or non-governmental organization and communicates with the public, mainly about scientific or technical information. Education, training, job titles, and specific responsibilities will differ, but if the core of what this professional does is communicating with the public about scientific or technical information and attempting to engage people, then for purposes of this article and in fact he or she is a communicator. 1 My intent is not to diminish, or enlarge, the professional title. But I think a good deal of understanding and common cause are lost when someone acting in this capacity does not see himor herself as a communicator but rather by the occupational title of Extension agent, science writer, public educator, public information officer, organizational spokesperson, or even agency manager or research scientist just doing some outreach. A common goal of all such professionals is to cause at least some change in understanding through communication. I invite these readers to examine five assumptions that are likely to sound familiar, as they are frequently spoken or implied. My goal is to improve professional practice by reflecting on these assumptions. The brief treatments are obviously not intended to be exhaustive but suggestive. r have I addressed all the assumptions that are made about communications; I ve merely selected the ones that, in the course of my own 30-year work life, seem to arise most frequently. To anchor my comments, I refer the reader to social science research that illuminates or, sometimes, corrects the assumptions. If this essay accomplishes nothing else, I hope it suggests the value for communicators in becoming more familiar with contemporary research in the social sciences. Particularly those who communicate science and technology might want to be familiar with research that relates to the science of communication for the basic reason that it could improve their work. Professional articles in relevant fields, including behavioral sciences, judgment and decision-making, learning, and, of course, communication, are readily found online these days; search engines can rapidly take the inquisitive to virtually any topic one can think of, and the challenge and stimulation to be found are their own reward. In the appendix are some models of communication and behavior change in graphical format with brief commentaries. A companion article to this one, Expand Your View, offers insights from behavioral research for improving public communications. Hold that Thought! Questioning five common assumptions about communicating with the public 3

4 Assumption 1 We need to get the word out. IIndividuals and institutions may see it as their responsibility, or indeed have the mandated responsibility, to share certain information with all or part of the public. Often this sharing is intended just to make public some organizational action; the intent may also be to benefit the public or cause some kind of change. These days, getting the word out commonly translates to sending news releases to the news media or posting items on a Web site. However, the often-repeated institutional call to get the word out usually reflects a one-way model of communication [see Appendix 1.1] that typically indicates that not enough critical thinking has preceded it if the intent is truly to interest and engage other people. In general, when presented with information, the public is just like most individuals: their attention is volatile, and they tend not to be vitally interested in someone else s information, products, or services, absent some reason of their own. 2 Communicators often stumble when driven by a presumed information deficit on the part of the intended other party to the communication. Scientists, professors, agency officials, and other holders of specialized information are particularly prone to this stumble, as they tend to believe that what they know is valuable, and if others would only receive it, then good things would happen. The irony is that the real information deficit resides in those who persist with this model, despite substantial evidence that it doesn t produce intended results. Since World War II, the science community has been operating under this information-deficit model, built on one-way flow of information from the expert to the public with very little information flowing back the other way. This model drove communication of science and technology for the last half of the 20th century, despite its very obvious shortcoming: Neither public support for research nor scientific literacy increased significantly in all that time. 3 In fact, the presentation of a message intending to persuade, but which is not considered persuasive by the audience, may occasion the opposite of the intended effect a negative reaction to the message or to the messenger. 4 While getting the word out most often entails a diffuse publicity orientation that produces items that disappear quickly, sometimes this orientation is more ambitious and leads to the development of elaborate Web sites, digital clearinghouses, or complex multimedia repositories, which still may not have a clear relationship to the information needs and interests of individuals or groups. Consider: Are you wanting to communicate or just publicize? Consider that most define communication as a dialogue and a process, not a monologue and a product. 5 You may wish to ask and answer the fundamental question: Who external to our organization wants or needs us to get the word out, and how do we know that? 4 Hold that Thought! Questioning five common assumptions about communicating with the public

5 Assumption 2 We already know how to communicate with this audience about subject X. TThis statement may indeed be true, if the appropriate homework has been done. But remarkably, organizational communications often fail or fall short because such homework has not been done. Communication causes change. In this sense, to communicate successfully with anyone usually begins with knowing what you want to accomplish, learning about the person or persons you intend to communicate with, and discovering how they currently view what you wish to communicate about. Sometimes it s unnecessary to ask the individual or group directly about these matters, if indirect and reliable sources of information about them and their views exist. But for public communications, often it does mean asking a group in large enough numbers and in an unbiased way. Fortunately, many well-established, science-based approaches to this inquiry exist, so communicators don t need to invent open-ended interviewing, 6 surveying, 7 focus groups, 8 or qualitative evaluation 9 methods. A review of the literature will provide useful guidance. Ultimately, both scientists and nonscientists benefit from a recognition that communication is best understood as a process, and during the process all parties are trying to influence the understanding of others, while weighing or framing information with reference to themselves and their interests. 10 The point that all communicators know but sometimes forget at their peril is: your audience is not an empty vessel simply awaiting your filling with what interests you. Assumption 2 embeds a corollary of which knowledge-holders and producers are often unconscious, which can be stated as the intended recipients of our information think like we do and want to receive information the way we want to present it. That is by no means a given. Producers need to be alert to a fascination with a particular tool. As Mark Twain put it, To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Today, that freely translates to, Let s put it on our Web site. OK and then? Consider: Ask yourself how you know about the audience. What methods have been used? What questions have been asked? How confident are you in the reliability of the information? What information do you have about the audience that would guide this specific communication? Hold that Thought! Questioning five common assumptions about communicating with the public 5

6 Assumption 3 If they only had information Z, then their behavior would change. IIt depends on what the information is, but often this formula betrays another assumption, which is sometimes dangerous for communicators when their managers or leaders believe it, too, and expect behavioral change. The information/behavior-change connection is rarely immediate, direct, or simple, and is therefore unwise to promise based on any single communication. A vast amount of social science research since the 1950s speaks to how people exercise judgment, make decisions, and change behaviors (each of these is a separate research domain, with many experts). Those who study behavior change have established that it typically happens when the individual has established the intention to change; and intention is usually dependent on appropriate and motivating beliefs, support from the individual s sense of what s typically done by people like him, and a perceived ability to perform the activity. 11 Even then, good intentions may run afoul of limitations or constraints the individual encounters in his or her environ- ment. This is why providing information about a behavioral goal (for example, Help stop invasive species! ) by itself is usually not sufficient to cause behavior change. The key insight for communicators is that a durable behavior change may come at the end of a communication process, but the recipient of the communication typically needs to go through several stages of processing the information before this occurs. A number of research-validated models for this processing have been developed by social scientists, and it may be useful for communicators to become familiar with them, at least insofar as the models describe the process: 12 The integrative model of behavioral prediction [Appendix 1.2] The stages of change model [Appendix 1.3] The hierarchy of effects model [Appendix 1.4] It s important for communicators not to get seduced by possessing information. As mentioned earlier in connection with the first assumption, while scientists and some science communicators seem to believe that others suffer from an information deficit that they can remedy, the question communicators must ask themselves is Have I done a proper diagnosis? If you re trying to provide information to help people make a decision or take action, what decisive information is it that they don t have? Lacking such a diagnosis, communicators may tell people what they already know and not tell them what they need to know. This isn t a good formula for effective communication. 13 Consider: Is durable behavior change really the goal of your communication? (Perhaps you just want people to take a particular action, even once. 14 ) What conceptual model of behavior change are you employing; that is, how do you think it occurs? You may not need to know the behavioral research, but you ll likely stumble around without some kind of model in mind for how change happens. 6 Hold that Thought! Questioning five common assumptions about communicating with the public

7 Assumption 4 Recipients of our information will consider it thoughtfully (and thus will learn what we d like them to learn). TThe proposition has two quite separable concepts: that (1) information is processed deliberatively, and (2) learning will result. While both can happen, social science research identifies at least five critical complicating factors: 1. Volatile attention: People have only so much mental energy and tend to be cognitive misers. Deliberative processing of communication is by no means assured; distractions are likely, and distractions can affect message-processing negatively or positively. 15 Particularly when people are asked to make a decision or judgment where there s uncertainty, certain mental shortcuts ( heuristics ) are commonly used and may not serve the user well Uncertain results of processing: Listening to an argument thoughtfully may result in agreement, but it can, of course, provoke disagreement [see Appendix 1.5, the Elaboration Likelihood Model of persuasion]. 17 Overall, learning involves some degree of yielding to the information presented by another and is not a given. 18 In addition, an individual s conscious processing can be preempted by social influence, which works powerfully on the subconscious, 19 and by rapid cognition, the thinking that happens in the blink of an eye Filtering by values: Citizens are rarely well enough equipped or motivated to consider the torrent of competing ideas with which they are constantly bombarded. Instead, they use value filters (predispositions such as political and religious beliefs) to screen out much of this torrent, to determine what sources and arguments to pay attention to Knowledge construction: Voluntary or free-choice learning is constructed by the individual, interacting with others, rather than simply absorbed from some information source. Contemporary research summarizes learning as always a highly personal process, highly dependent upon past experiences, occurring within a highly situated socio-cultural context, and involving multiple sources of experience and information, which collectively contribute to knowledge construction Competing sources: Access to information and its rapid dissemination among interested parties made possible by the Internet has made it very unlikely that consequential statements claiming to be authoritative will go unchallenged. 23 The Internet holds great promise for learning, but one peril is clear. Many more sources of information are more available than ever before, and the learner may either not be able to tell which sources are knowledgeable and trustworthy or as noted above will simply select a source that agrees with his established opinions or values. 24 Consider: Question assertions that a communication is intended to educate the public. If some specific learning is indeed a critical goal, communicators should consider collaborating with a team that (sensibly) might include a specialist in learning research, particularly someone familiar with non-school or free-choice learning. Hold that Thought! Questioning five common assumptions about communicating with the public 7

8 Assumption 5 Successful communication is an art. PPublic communicators may want to watch out for this one because of what it does not say. Yes, for those who design and produce media, art is important. It is wise not to underestimate the effects of words and images and the media that convey them. But even more important for communicators is creativity that mysterious yoking of aptitude and experience brought to illuminate a current task. That is the art of communication. Practitioners of artful communication, it should be said, can readily be found in the parallel universe of sales and marketing, and what accounts for their success as persuaders is stimulating to think about, as described in a continuous stream of business psychology best-sellers. 25 For instance, public communicators can probably benefit from the explanation for why the historical Paul Revere was such a successful communicator (to summarize baldly, he was a superb connector at work in a powerful social-historical context). 26 And it s intriguing to consider what traits and behaviors made Joe Girard the greatest car salesman, according to Guinness World Records. 27 But ultimately, the art of persuasion should not be the main study of communicators who wish to be trusted. Instead, success in public communication, particularly about science, usually involves the pursuit of objectivity and the application of science social science consciously and systematically. In general, scientifically guided evaluation is the best way to formulate communication, test it, and determine whether the communication accomplished its purposes. Specifically, well-established communication models based in social science do exist and have shown their practical value, such as the nonpersuasive communication/risk communication model 28 [see Appendix 1.6, npersuasive communication]. Finally, communication specialists that is, writers, editors, designers, et al. want to be careful of the you re an artist trap. If the scientists or other subject-matter experts believe that communication is only an art, they re more likely not to consult with the communicators on what to communicate, with whom, and why. But once having taken a stab at those cru- cial decisions, they may leave the specialists their incompletely formulated communication ideas to wordsmith, do the layout, or put on the Web. This can be a no-win situation; if the communicator slavishly follows the subject-matter experts, the communication may miss the audience mark. If the communicator uses her experience to refine the approach, the subject experts may not agree or be pleased with the result. (They in fact may not understand it.) Better to assert your equal, collegial role in the communication process much earlier. Consider: Challenge the wordsmith cant. Getting the words right is not a trivial pursuit; it results from thinking clearly. Communicators are only doing their job by requiring subject-matter experts to be clear and detailed about what they know which they believe should be communicated, with whom, and why. When faced with a communication task, the better first thought is not Can I do it? but If I do it, what do I need to know to do it better? 8 Hold that Thought! Questioning five common assumptions about communicating with the public

9 Appendix: Models of communication and persuasion What are they? In the broadest sense, a model is a systematic representation of an object or event in idealized and abstract form. Models are somewhat arbitrary by their nature. The act of abstracting eliminates certain details to focus on essential factors.... The key to the usefulness of a model is the degree to which it conforms in point-by-point correspondence to the underlying determinants of communicative behavior. 29 Models should clarify complexity, make it possible to ask intelligent questions, and lead to new discoveries. 30 It probably goes without saying that each of the models shown here is just one way of visualizing a substantial amount of research, which not surprisingly in each case has its adherents and detractors The one-way transmission model of communication Originally described in 1949 by engineers for Bell Telephone, the goal of the model was to help engineer telephone transmission. But it became the most influential of all early communication models and probably still represents the basic model that many people hold in their minds. The lead engineer, Claude Shannon, later introduced a correcting mechanism at the receiver; this became the forerunner of the now widely used concept of feedback (information which a communicator gains from others in response to his own verbal behavior). 31 Information source Transmitter Receiver Destination Message Signal Received signal Message ise source Figure 1.1. The one-way transmission model of communication. (Model redrawn from Schematic diagram of a general communication system, Shannon and Weaver 1963) 32 Hold that Thought! Questioning five common assumptions about communicating with the public 9

10 Distal Variables Demographic variables Culture Behavioral beliefs & outcome evaluations Attitude Skills Attitudes toward targets, e.g., stereotypes and stigmas Personality, moods, and emotions rmative beliefs & motivation to comply Perceived norm Intention Behavior Other individual differences variables, e.g., perceived risk Exposure to media and other interventions Efficacy beliefs Self-efficacy Environmental constraint Figure 1.2. The integrative model of behavioral prediction. (Model redrawn from An Integrative Model of Behavioral Prediction, Fishbein and Yzer) The integrative model of behavioral prediction Behavioral psychology can help clarify what happens to information on its way to action. What enables individual behavior, this particular model suggests, is the coming together of key determinants. A weakness at any point can undermine or disable the behavior. People fail to do things not just because they don t have the appropriate information. They may have the information but have not yet formed the intention, because their attitude toward the behavior isn t positive or the behavior isn t consistent with what they believe people like me should do, or perhaps they just lack confidence in their ability to perform the behavior. Without these, intentions don t form, and if they do, a lack of personal skills or some other constraint in the environment prevents the individual from realizing that intention. The model shown here, developed largely through health communication research, was developed by leading researcher Martin Fishbein, and is supported by other models: the Health Belief Model, Social Cognitive Theory, the Theory of Reasoned Action, and the Theory of Planned Behavior The stages of change model The stages of change are properly just part of a larger transtheoretical model of change that also includes the processes by which one moves between stages. 35 Five stages of change have been conceptualized for a variety of problem behaviors. The five stages of change are precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance. Precontemplation is the stage at which there is no intention to change behavior in the foreseeable future. Many individuals at this stage are unaware or underaware of their problems. Contemplation is the stage at which people are aware that a problem exists and are seriously thinking about overcoming it but have not yet made a commitment to take action. Preparation is a stage that combines intention and behavioral criteria. Individuals at this stage are intending to take action in the next month and have unsuccessfully taken action in the past year. Action is the stage at which individuals modify their behavior, experiences, or environment in order to overcome their problems. Action involves the most overt behavioral changes and requires considerable commitment of time and energy. Maintenance is the stage at which people work to prevent relapse and consolidate the gains attained during action. 36 Relapse or regression to a previous stage can occur at any point. While all models have adherents and detractors, it should be noted that this model has been very strongly challenged as inadequate in describing what really happens during behavioral change: the problems with the model are so serious that it has held back advances in the field of health promotion and, despite its intuitive appeal to many practitioners, it should be discarded Hold that Thought! Questioning five common assumptions about communicating with the public

11 Pre-contemplation Preparation Contemplation Relapse Figure 1.3. The stages of change model The hierarchy of effects model William McGuire imagined human information processing as akin to the linear logic of a computer and developed several versions of essentially the same hierarchy of effects model, from the 1960s through the 1990s. The model was meant to describe the pro- Action Maintenance Stable behavior cessing of persuasive information that consumers typically are confronted with in the marketplace. Although later elaborated into twice as many steps, the original six steps give the model s essential framework: 1. The persuasive message must be communicated. 2. The receiver will attend to the message. 3. The receiver will comprehend the message. 4. The receiver yields to and is convinced by the arguments presented. 5. The newly adopted position/attitude is retained. 6. The desired behavior takes place. 38 As McGuire s cartoon below indicates, the model assumes a linear progression with each stage presenting a yes/no decision point. McGuire s 1999 formulation, with 13 steps, puts more flesh on this skeleton (and has many stage elements in common with other models). But many observers question whether the mind is so orderly. 1. Exposure 2. Attention 3. Liking 4. Comprehension 5. Cognitive elaboration 6. Skill acquisition 7. Agreement 8. Memory storage 9. Retrieval 10. Decision making 11. Acting on decision 12. Cognitive consolidation 13. Proselytizing 39 Pay attention to the message? YES NO Comprehend it? action YES NO Believe it? action YES NO Remember it? action YES NO Behave accordingly? action YES NO Action action Figure 1.4. The hierarchy of effects model. (Model redrawn from An Information Processing Model of Advertising Effectiveness, W. J. McGuire, Behavioral and Management Sciences in Marketing, edited by H. L. Davis and A. J. Silk, 1978) Hold that Thought! Questioning five common assumptions about communicating with the public 11

12 Nature of cognitive processing initial attitude, argument quality, etc. Favorable thoughts predominate Persuasive communication Motivated to process? personal relevance, need for cognition, personal responsibility, etc. Yes Ability to process? distraction, repetition, prior knowledge, message comprehensibility, etc. Yes Unfavorable thoughts predominate Cognitive structure change Are new cognitions adopted and stored in memory? Are different responses made salient than previously? Neither or neutral predominate Peripheral attitude shift Attitude is relatively temporary, susceptible, and unpredictive of behavior Yes Peripheral cue present? positive/negative affect, attractive expert sources, number of arguments, etc. Retain or regain initial attitude 1.5. The Elaboration Likelihood Model Are people always as thoughtful and stepwise in their thinking as the preceding models suggest? The Elaboration Likelihood Model, developed by Richard Petty and others, finds two very different routes for attitude change: a peripheral and a central route. People are often distracted, unmotivated, or too busy to really think about a topic intended to persuade them. Instead of a stepwise logic, they use peripheral cues and mental shortcuts to make a decision. These shortcuts may be based on visuals, on previous knowledge, or on associations. On the other hand, when motivated, people may use the central route, which focuses on evaluating arguments. Attitudes changed along the central route are more persistent, more resistant to counterpersuasion, and more predictive of behavior than attitudes changed along the peripheral route. Yes (favorable) Yes (unfavorable) Central positive attitude change Central negative attitude change Attitude is relatively enduring, resistant, and predictive of behavior Figure 1.5. The Elaboration Likelihood Model. (Model redrawn from The Elaboration Likelihood Model, R. E. Petty, J. A. Kasmer, C. P. Haugtvedt, and J. T. Cacioppo, 1987, Source and message factors in persuasion: A reply to Stiff s critique of the elaboration likelihood model, Communications Monographs 54: ) 12 Hold that Thought! Questioning five common assumptions about communicating with the public

13 1.6. npersuasive communication In contrast to the preceding analytical models, which are all primarily concerned with how to make persuasion effective, is the nonpersuasive communication model advanced by Baruch Fischhoff and others. This model proceeds from a different premise: People tend to make reasonable choices if they get key facts in a credible, comprehensible form; have control over themselves and their environment; are judged by their own goals; and have basic decision-making competence. 41 As a result of this premise, the orientation of nonpersuasive communication is on the decision making of the communication recipients rather than the persuasion methods of the communicators. In order to communicate a scientific or technical topic about which the recipient may or should make a decision (often a risk topic), the model developed by Fischhoff and others focuses on understanding the recipients beliefs about the topic through the following steps: 1. create a model (diagram) of expert understanding of the topic; 2. with reference to the expert model, conduct open-ended interviews with the intended audience to solicit their beliefs about the topic; 3. conduct structured surveys in order to confirm understanding obtained in step 2; 4. use the information from the previous steps to draft a communication that addresses the incorrect beliefs that are most important to correct and the knowledge gaps that need to be filled; 5. test and refine communication until successful. 42 Domain scientists Represent the research Decision scientists Identify information critical to user choices The team s bottom-line concerns Social scientists Identify user barriers, motivators Accuracy Relevance Clarity Users Communicators Design materials; engage users Acceptance Figure 1.6. npersuasive communication. (Model redrawn from The npersuasive Communication team approach, Baruch Fischhoff, npersuasive Communication about matters of greatest urgency: climate change, Environmental Science & Technology A-Page Magazine, 41 (21): ) Hold that Thought! Questioning five common assumptions about communicating with the public 13

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